Thomas Halliday: “Life is always looking for a way to stay, but the way it does so can change radically”

Thomas Halliday: “Life is always looking for a way to stay, but the way it does so can change radically”

Thomas Halliday (32 years old, Edinburgh) clarifies that he didn’t decide to become a paleontologist because the film Jurassic Park changed his life. The reality was much less fictional: after studying biology at university for several years, he took several courses in paleontology over the last year and chose this path that led to the publication of Other Worlds (Debate). With this story, which he wrote in less than 18 months, he wants to challenge preconceived notions about Earth’s past, such as that it was inhabited by monstrous beings that devastated everything in their path: “I wanted to present creatures that used to be there inhabit our planet as such, as creatures,” he explains.

The author has weaved the narrative thread from the most recent to the most distant, without omitting one of the great extinctions of the past, such as that which killed the dinosaurs after the impact of a 10-kilometer-wide meteorite. With suggestive prose, he describes in detail the no longer existing ecosystems, so that the reader suddenly finds himself in the middle of the mammoth steppe, surrounded by two meter tall penguins, in the company of dinosaurs the size of a dog or in Pangea when all continents were one. Halliday wants to go back in time and take us with him. During a lightning visit to Madrid, he visited EL PAÍS in the offices of the publishing house Penguin Random House.

Questions. When did you start worrying about nature?

Answer. I grew up in the Scottish Highlands watching birds and deer… It was a wonderful place for a 10 year old.

P What made you decide to write this story?

R There were several reasons. Including the way paleontology is presented to the public, mostly in monstrous ways, with aggressive dinosaurs constantly trying to eat everything, regardless of whether it makes sense or not. People usually know something about the Ice Age and something about the Age of Dinosaurs or about the Cambrian Explosion, but there are many gaps between these phases that are equally interesting and that I wanted to show.

P How was the writing process?

R I decided early on to devote a chapter to each geological age. I chose locations from around the world with the aim of including all modern continents to also represent the diversity of ecosystems that once existed. If only the best preserved sites had been chosen, they would all have been shallow lagoons and the lakes and other diversity of ecosystems existing in the mountains would not have appeared.

P Have you traveled to the enclaves featured in the book?

R no Since these are places that existed millions and millions of years ago, if we visited them now they would look very different. I’ve been to places that are similar, analogous, but found in different places. I relied in part on these other sites to write the story to make the process a little more immersive.

P Throughout the story, he mentions several times that you have to imagine the past to a certain extent. What is the margin of error?

R All factual elements are based on scientific knowledge. It can be direct, for example based on the anatomy of a skeleton, or indirect, with aspects to be inferred, such as behaviors to which analogies must be made between extinct animals and those of today. You now see an animal and can imagine what its ancestors were like. The part that has to do with imagination is feeling how you react to the past. Obviously there are parts that are better supported by scientific evidence than others, but when there is a conflict between theories, for the sake of narrative I’ll just pick one of the plausible theories that is better supported. The advantage of writing is that when describing in words you can ignore what you really don’t know and only say what you are sure of, whereas with a painting, for example, you can’t leave an animal out of a word . Part.

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P In the book he talks about the illusion of stability that we humans have. How can we relate this to climate change and our fears for the future?

R Humans tend to think that we are something inherent in the world, but we are only a part of the world that exists right now, which is a very small part of the entire history of the planet. There is a notion of fragility in life. Fossils show us that those worlds that existed and thrived are gone. Life itself remains, but the way in which it does so, the forms of life, can change radically.

P There are several chapters dealing with disruptive changes, great catastrophes like the impact of the great meteorite that wiped out the dinosaurs. Could one say that climate change is the most abrupt the earth has ever experienced? Or what distinguishes them from those that have taken place before?

R The extinction caused by the meteorite was unique. It is the only one additionally produced by an external or extraterrestrial agent. The rest was caused by climatic changes over relatively short periods of time. The changes we are seeing today are as rapid or even faster than in previous mass extinctions. If we think about the change that took place at the end of the Permian 250 million years ago, things were pretty much the same as they are today, like the disappearance of oxygen from the bottom of the oceans, the presence of large amounts of greenhouse gases in a greenhouse (which was then controlled by a volcanic area of… the size of Australia and is now due to emissions from fossil fuels)… In this extinction, 95% of life disappeared.

P After writing this book and seeing that life always stays one way or the other despite tremendous catastrophic situations, did it help you to be optimistic about the current situation in the world?

R Not necessarily. I think I’m optimistic, but more so because I have faith that as a society we can see what’s happening, what we’re doing, and that we have the ability to prevent it. The fact that life remains after a mass extinction should be of no consolation, for each time one occurs, life returns in an entirely different manner, and the Cretaceous or Paleocene world, while close, was vastly different .

P In Other Worlds, he explains how politics and boundaries have influenced how native species are treated, and how they are considered alien even if they have lived in an area for millions of years. In what other ways has politics affected nature?

R As humans, we are constantly changing our environment. In the UK, many people think of the Scottish Highlands as wild, idyllic places…but they have been radically altered by farming, forestry, hunting… The natural ecosystem in Scotland would be a rainforest if it hadn’t been altered, but now they are mountains. Many people live in these habitats and have to make a living, so it’s also important to think not only about ‘saving the whales’, but also how that can affect people, how they can survive.

Paleontologist Thomas Halliday in Luchana, Madrid.Paleontologist Thomas Halliday in Luchana, Madrid.Samuel Sánchez

P Throughout history, animals (and humans for as long as we have existed) have adapted to their environment. Would you say that you adapt to change more quickly now?

R Adaptation is determined by the time it takes one generation to bring forth the next. Animals with longer generation processes tend to become extinct faster. There are now microbes that have adapted to eating plastic and have very short generation times, allowing them to evolve very quickly. And the rate at which we are changing our environment is too fast for most organisms to adapt. Sometimes they can keep up with the environment, but that’s not always possible, especially when it comes to the poles or mountains where space is limited.

P What interested you most in your research: perhaps the apes that crossed the Atlantic on natural rafts in the Oligocene (32 million years ago)?

R This is a very beautiful story that is hard to believe. All of the monkeys in South America are descended from an ancestral population that somehow came from Africa. Paleontologists of the past tried to figure out how it came about. They imagined some land bridges they had crossed, but there is no evidence that they existed. We know that some species can cross large oceans. For example, Antigua’s iguanas migrated from one island to another, and the fishermen were witnesses. That’s a smaller distance, but when we talk about geologic timescales, there’s plenty of time for all of this. I really think that’s the best anecdote, you can imagine that the monkeys on the raft don’t know what’s going on (laughs).

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